BIKE TECH: Wheel Lacing Step By Step

There is nothing quite like riding on a well done hand built wheel. A few days ago, we reviewed the tools necessary for wheel building. Today, we will present exactly how to build a professional grade hand built wheel. The method I outline below is one of many ways of doing this, but is how I personally build wheels based on 13 years of wheel building experience. Additionally, this methodology is based on the teachings of John Barnett at highly respected Barnett Bicycle Institute.

Please note that there is no substitute for experience here. Wheel building is as advanced as it gets with bicycle mechanics (aside from frame building I suppose). Generally, the best wheel builders are people who have acute attention to detail and have personally built thousands of wheels with their own hands. There is certainly no substitute for experience, but you have to start somewhere, right?

Cross/Lacing Patterns: There are many different spoke lacing patterns out there, a few popular ones, and then one dominant one: three cross. The three cross spoke lacing pattern provides great strength, compliance, and is light weight. Over 95% of hand built wheels are built using the three cross lacing pattern, and that is what will be outlined here.

Gathering your parts: Where to start? First off, you need to assemble the parts you will need for your wheel. You'll need to pick out a hub that is suited to your bike and riding style, a rim with the same number of spoke holes as your rim, and then spokes of the correct length. Now we could talk for hours alone about spoke length calculation, but we won't. The best way to get a spoke length calculation is to simply check with your local bike shop. They have access to computer programs that calculate the spoke length(s) you will need based on the hub, rim, spoke lacing pattern, and brand of spoke.

All components of a wheel "assembled" before the wheel is built.

Spoke Prep: Now that you have all of your parts, tools, and the correct length spokes, let's get going! First, you'll want to apply some Wheelsmith Spoke Prep to the threads of each spoke. Just a thin layer covering the threads will do. Spoke Prep acts as a lubricant, preventing seizing but also preventing the spoke nipple from loosening (similar to Loc-Tite in some ways). Now with a rear wheel, the drive side spokes are shorter than the non-drive side. For this reason, when you buy spoke prep it comes in 2 colors. I usually use the orange on the drive side and the blue on the non-drive side. Apply the spoke prep and let it fully dry.

Wheelsmith Spoke Prep applied to all 32 spokes. Note the orange spoke prep for the drive side and blue for the non-dive side.

Marking the Hub: Only 2 more steps of prep work before we start lacing! Now, we will be marking the hub and rim for the 4 "sets" (sets A, B, C, and D) of spokes that make up a wheel.

On the hub, using a marker, we will first mark the "A spoke hole" on the right or drive side of the hub. I usually pick a hole about 3 holes to the left of where the hub logo is located, so the hub logo and rim valve hole line up. Now, hold the hub up, look through the hole you just marked, and mark the hole on the opposite side of the hub (left or non-drive side) to the left of the A spoke hole. This is your "B spoke hole".

The "A spoke hole" is marked on the drive side. Then the "B spoke hole" is marked on the non-drive side.

Marking the Rim: Now, we will mark the rim for the A, B, C, and D spoke sets. For symmetrical rims, randomly pick which side will be the right side. Mark it with an "R" at the valve hole. Now skip a hole and put an "A" on the 2nd spoke hole to the right of the valve hole. Skip another one and put a "C" on the 4th hole to the right of the valve hole.

Flip the rim over to the other side, except mark the valve hole with a "L" (for left). Now mark the 1st spoke hole to the left of the value hole with a "B". Finally, mark the 3rd hole to the left mark the rim with a "D".

Marking the rim on the right side with a "R", "A", and "C".

Now it's time to start lacing! This is the fun part where your pile of parts will start to look like a wheel.

Inserting "A set" spokes into hub: Take your drive side (right) spokes (remember, they're the ones you applied orange spoke prep to) and insert one of them into the marked spoke hole on the right (drive) side of the hub with the spoke head facing out. Now go ahead and insert the spokes with orange spoke prep into every other hole on that drive side of the hub – all with the spoke heads facing out. Once spokes are in every other spoke hole on the right/drive side hub flange, all of your “A set” spokes are in place.

The "A Set" spokes all inserted into the right (drive side) of the hub with the spoke heads facing out.

Lacing "A set" spokes to rim: Next, we will lace up these “A set” spokes to the rim. To do this, simply, insert the first “A spoke” from the marked “A hole” on the hub to the rim hole marked with an A. Start the nipple on this spoke, note there is no need to tighten the nipple much, just a couple threads of engagement is good. With your first “A spoke” in, go ahead and install the rest of the spokes, inserting them in every 4th hole on the rim (3 empty holes between each spoke). After all of your “A set” spokes are in, carefully inspect your work to ensure that there are 3 empty spoke holes on the rim between each of the “A set” spokes.

Lacing the first "A set" spoke from the hole that is marked on the right hand hub flange to the hole marked "A" on the rim.

Inserting "B set" spokes into hub: Now, we move on to the “B set” spokes. This is very similar to the “A set” process. Note that the “B set” spokes are on the left or non-drive side of the hub – for this reason, we will use the spokes with blue spoke prep on them. Start by inserting a spoke with blue spoke prep in the spoke hole that you earlier marked on the left spoke flange with the spoke head facing out. Now go ahead and insert the spokes with blue spoke prep into every other hole on that non-drive side of the hub – all with the spoke heads facing out.

Lacing "B set" spokes: Very similar to the "A set" spokes, you'll first start lacing the "B set" spokes by beginning with the spoke from the marked hole on the left hub flange to the spoke hole marked "B" on the rim. Now, again similar to the "A set", go ahead and lace up the rest of the "B set" spokes in every fourth hole (skipping 3 spoke holes between each "B set" spoke). Again, carefully inspect your work, ensuring there are 3 spoke holes between each "B set" spoke on the rim. Also, each B set spoke should be right next to the "A set" spokes.

OK, the A & B spoke sets were relatively easy. Now we move on to the C and D sets, which is where we establish the cross pattern. Additionally, for starting the nipples on the C and D sets, you'll need to use either the Bicycle Research Nipple Driver (or a small flat head screwdriver will do - but not work as well).

Inserting "C set" spokes into hub: To start this, we’ll insert the “C set” spokes (with orange spoke prep on them) into the right (drive) side of the hub with the spoke heads facing in.
Next, with the right hand side of the wheel facing you, twist the hub clockwise. As you do this, you’ll notice that the spokes seem to tighten up in a way, as you're increasing the distance from the spoke hole in the hub to the corresponding rim spoke hole.

The "C set" spokes inserted into the hub and ready to lace.

Lacing "C set" spokes: The first "C set" spoke we will lace up will go to the hole in the rim marked "C". To determine which spoke to use from the hub, first identify the "A spoke". In this case, we are building a 3 cross wheel. This means that your first "C set" spoke will need to cross 3 "A set" spokes. Select your first "C set" spoke by grabbing the third "C set" spoke to the left of your first "A set" spoke. Lace this spoke to the hole marked C in the rim. Note that all "C set" spokes will go over the first 2 "A set" spokes and over the last one. Just think over - over - under. Now finish up lacing the "C set" spokes using the same over - over - under pattern. After you're done lacing all "C set" spokes, again carefully inspect your work. Note that every spoke on the right (drive side) should cross 3 other spokes and should be symmetrical.

Inserting "D set" spokes into hub: To start this, we’ll insert the “D set” spokes (with blue spoke prep on them) into the left (non-drive) side of the hub with the spoke heads facing in.

Lacing "D set" spokes: The first "D set" spoke we will lace up will go to the hole in the rim marked "D". To determine which spoke to use from the hub, first identify the "B spoke". In this case, we are building a 3 cross wheel. This means that your first "D set" spoke will need to cross 3 "B set" spokes. Select your first "D set" spoke by grabbing the third "D set" spoke to the right of your first "B set" spoke. Lace this spoke to the hole marked D in the rim. Note that all "D set" spokes will go over the first 2 "B set" spokes and over the last one. Just think over - over - under. Now finish up lacing the "D set" spokes using the same over - over - under pattern. After you're done lacing all "D set" spokes, again carefully inspect your work. Note that every spoke on the left (non-drive side) should cross 3 other spokes and should be symmetrical.

Congratulations! You've just laced a 3 cross bicycle wheel, one of the more advanced things to do in the field of bicycle mechanics! Stay tuned to CyclovaXC.com for a post later this week detailing how to tension and true the wheel that you just laced up.


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